Child abduction occurs when, in violation of lawful authority, a child is transported or detained, even if for a short period of time. Whereas news media often focus on dramatic stranger kidnappings, the problem of child abductions is more complex, often involving noncustodial family members. Despite this, much of the impetus for studying child abductions has been in response to public outcry in the wake of noteworthy abduction cases. In the past 2 decades, missing children emerged as a public concern, leading to the increased study of child abductions and the variety of missing children.
Although abducting a child is typically a criminal offense, the family court, a branch of the civil court system, determines custodial rights. Except for the most clear-cut cases, this distinction makes development of policies to combat abductions rather complex. In recent years, authorities quickly instituted action programs designed to combat child abductions, such as AMBER Alert and Code Adam, both named after kidnapped and murdered children.
Child abductions fall into three varieties. Familial abductions occur when, in violation of a custody order or other legitimate custody right, a child’s family member absconds with or fails to return a child in a timely fashion. A nonfamily abduction occurs when, without parental consent, a nonfamily perpetrator takes a child by force or coercion and detains that child for at least 1 hour. Stereotypical kidnapping, a subcategory of nonfamilial abduction, occurs when a stranger or slight acquaintance holds a child overnight with the intention to hold the child for ransom or to physically harm the child.
Much of what is known about the child abduction problem comes from studies known as the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, or NISMART. An estimated 68,000 to 150,000 cases of child abduction occur each year in the United States, although the three types of abductions occur with varying frequency. Familial cases are by far the most common, occurring an estimated 56,000 to 117,000 times annually. Nonfamilial abductions also occur with high frequency, between 12,000 and 33,000 cases yearly. Although they are most frequently covered in the news media, stereotypical kidnappings are extremely rare, occurring 90 to 115 times each year.
Research indicates that children themselves often thwart attempted abductions, and this reinforces the importance of teaching “stranger danger.” In a series of partnerships between mass media and law enforcement, AMBER Alert plans now exist in all 50 states. When a child is abducted, law enforcement may broadcast the description of the victim and perpetrator on television and radio, via highway signs, and via cellular phones. In addition, many large retail chain stores have instituted Code Adam plans, restricting people from exiting from the premises until a lost child is found.
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (http://www.missingkids.com/home).
- Sedlak, Andrea J., David Finkelhor, Heather Hammer, and Dana J. Schultz. 2002. National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview. NISMART Bulletin No. NCJ 196465. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/196465.pdf).
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